Movie Review: World War Z
By Matthew Huntley
July 1, 2013
When it comes to movies based on novels, I make it a point not to place the two side by side and compare. Print and film are two different texts and should therefore be judged independently of each other, although I do think it’s fair to ask which medium does a better job of telling the same story.
In the case of World War Z, even that approach seems futile, because the book and film are similar in name and concept only. The structure and details of Max Brooks’ novel are paid little to no fidelity by Marc Forster’s movie, and it’s not the idea of this that holds the movie back - an adaptation can be as loyal or loose as it wants depending on how well it serves the story and medium - but rather the movie itself. For those familiar with the book, it’s clear that preserving Brooks’ source would have been more beneficial.
Brooks’ novel was essentially a compilation of first-person testimonials from survivors of the “Zombie War,” a plague that infected over 200 million people worldwide. The multitudinous accounts range from members of the military to everyday civilians, young and old, and each speaks of their own personal experience during the outbreak. Collectively, they paint a morbid and thought-provoking picture of just how close humanity came to an end.
Forster’s movie, working from a screenplay by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard and Damon Lindelof, all but abandons this structure and functions instead as a standard-issue zombie apocalypse story with a central hero, the likes of which we’ve seen many times before. It’s a basic Hollywood template, which is a shame since the book was much more interesting, personal and effectual.
Brad Pitt stars as Gerry Lane, an ex-U.N. soldier/coordinator/commissioner. It’s never clear what his actual title was; all we know is he’s seen his fair share of wars and devastation throughout the world. Now he’s a stay-at-home husband to Karin (Mireille Enos) and father to Rachel and Constance (Abigail Hargrove and Sterling Jarins), living a more subdued life in Philadelphia. One day, Gerry and his family are sitting in traffic when, without warning, the city comes under attack by zombies. Suddenly the Lanes and everybody else on the planet are running for their lives when Gerry gets a call from his former supervisor (Fana Mokoena) saying he needs to report back in for duty right away.
From the get-go, the movie wants us to believe Gerry is the only one capable of restoring order to the world - that there’s no one else on Earth with his special skill set, which, I suppose, involves investigating and finding the root causes to the world’s problems. In this case, he’s tasked with aiding a virologist to find the origin that led to the zombie outbreak. After taking shelter with a kind Hispanic family, Gerry and his family are helicoptered to a ship off the coast of New York City, and unless Gerry cooperates with the U.N., he and his family will be kicked off.
So he has no choice but to fly to South Korea, where the word “zombie” was first used to describe the symptoms of the virus. Why this tidbit of information is enough to send Gerry to the other side of the world is beyond me, but just to show you how impetuous Gerry and the government are, subsequent testimonies send him to Israel and then to Wales, as if it’s easy and fast to get to these places. Lucky for Gerry (and humanity), he experiences different moments of realization that lead him to figure out how the virus can at least be stopped from spreading.
Along the way, of course, there are several zombie attacks, chase scenes, explosions, etc. - you know, typical action movie stuff. All this proved rather mundane and ineffectual because we’ve seen so many like them before, and not just in other zombie pictures. They’re nothing special here and the movie never achieves a high level of excitement or tension, not least because we never suspect Gerry or his family are in any real danger. He is, after all, the hunky Hollywood hero and the hero always survives, despite the odds against him. Plus, the movie isn’t exactly credible, even in its own absurd world. The plane sequence in particular was so preposterous it left with me questions instead of in a state of awe. For instance, why are Gerry and another female character the only survivors? And given their injuries, how were they able to walk to the W.H.O. (World Health Organization) lab? How far did they walk? How did they even know where to go?
I know - logic and realism don’t really have a role in a movie like this, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t notice such things. Perhaps if World War Z had done a better job of being suspenseful and engaging, I wouldn’t have cared so much. But it seems content with just being a traditional zombie story, and because Brooks’ novel was anything but, I can answer my own question from the beginning of this review: the print version of World War Z does a better job of telling the same story than the film. True, they are vastly different, so in that case, I’ll go even further and say the book is a better narrative experience overall. Compared to the novel’s profundity and emotion, the movie and Brad Pitt’s closing narration are flat, and the same goes for the action and special effects. Combined, they don’t make for an overtly bad movie, just a mediocre one. Whereas the novel causes you to remember specific moments and reflect on them, the movie doesn’t, and that’s usually a sign it’s probably not worth your time.